Understanding The Flaws Of Language To Become A Better Leader.


This article for goldfish:

  • As much as language empowers us, it is deeply flawed. Understanding these flaws is a necessity for effective leadership.
  • Language is the power to understand the world as much as it is the power to make the world understand you. Successful leaders are often great listeners.
  • Leadership is about creating a shared vision and strong connections within your team. Language can be used as a tool to create both.

This article for humans:

Language is an interesting and tricky way of communicating. 

As far as we know, it is one of the most advanced tools out there to express ourselves.

Language is one of the main reasons the human race has progressed at a much faster pace than any other species known to mankind. Most of our lives have become vastly more comfortable over the last 500 years and language has played a notable role in this progression.

Not only are we able to describe and share in detail our feelings, thoughts, intentions and observations, we’ve learned to record and store them for future generations to come. Inventions and systems that make our lives more comfortable today, are built on centuries of knowledge being carried over from previous generations.

Pretty impressive… show me another species that can pull that off at scale!

If you dig a little deeper, however, language doesn’t seem to be an advanced way of expressing ourselves at all. 

It’s far from flawless. 

Understanding these flaws will help you master communication on a higher level, which will help you become a better leader.

Getting lost in translation.

First, the ‘sender’ must translate their thoughts into a particular set of words. These words then travel to the ‘receiver’, who is often surrounded by potential distractions. Next the receiver, with their own unique set of biases and perceptions, translates this set of words into a message they believe has been communicated to them.

Going through all of these steps, some things are bound to get lost in translation, even when sender and receiver have mastered the same language.

Practical implications for leaders:
As a leader, listening is often more important than talking. Listen to understand, don’t listen to reply. Don’t let a message you can’t fully comprehend pass by. Ask the person to elaborate and ask questions to explore the meaning and motivation behind a certain message. Don’t make assumptions. Summarise what has been said and repeat it back to make sure you fully understand the person on the other side of the table (e.g. ‘So what you’re saying is….’).

Speaking of truth.

Communication is further complicated when taking into account the sender potentially does not intend to be entirely honest or direct.

Figuring out the true meaning of a message and the motives behind it, can already be hard enough when the sender tries to convey what is on their mind. It becomes even more difficult when there is the possibility the sender is conveying a message that is in conflict with what their thoughts really are.

In business, you’ll see this often in the form of words not matching up with the actions of a certain person.

Practical implications for leaders:
Trust is vulnerable. Consequences should be severe for team members who twist the truth. Encourage people to speak their minds and lead by example. Be transparent, speak the truth (even when the truth is uncomfortable) and be direct when possible.


The fact that some things are simply not to be spoken about can complicate communication in a similar way. Certain facts of life must be learned on our own if they are not deemed conversation-appropriate. In some societies discussing a subject that is taboo can even lead to severe punishment, which limits the free flow of information. 

Taboos can have disastrous consequences for a society, but also on a smaller scale, within a business.

When taking responsibility for failure is matched with serious consequences, discussing human error becomes a taboo. In the long run this will lead to a toxic work environment in which problems persist. Team members prefer to cover up errors and point the finger at each other instead of solving the problem, because of the risks involved.

Human error will always persist, it can’t be prevented by punishment. Doing so is like treating the symptoms instead of the disease.

Being able to discuss human error openly will bring people together to find ways to improve processes and deal with these errors.

Practical implications for leaders:
Make clear that everything can be discussed. Encourage open communication, honest feedback and ownership. Admitting and openly discussing flaws and mistakes should be encouraged. As a leader, this starts by giving the right example.

Lost for words.

Even if any subject could be breached easily and even if every word was spoken truthfully, we would still find ourselves limited by our vocabulary and the words that exist in the language we agree to converse in. 

Something that can be described by a word or phrase in one language, might be impossible to describe using multiple sentences in another. Some concepts cannot be described accurately by words at all.

In the same way our languages give us the ability to describe our feelings and thoughts, it also sets boundaries to what can and cannot be communicated. We can try to describe reality, but words often fall short in attempting to accurately render a complete picture.

A picture can truly be worth a 1,000 words.

Practical implications for leaders:
If you want to make a real impact: show, don’t tell.

Tricked by ambiguity.

To make things more complicated, sometimes a single word describes multiple concepts. I have yet to learn a language in which there is no ambiguity. They all include some words and phrases that can be interpreted in multiple ways. 

Practical implications for leaders:
Meet face-to-face for key communication, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. Body language can take away most ambiguity. Miscommunication and escalation are more likely to happen through e-mail / chat / direct messaging.

Language is a tool. Use it to your advantage.

Language might not be a flawless way of communicating, but it’s doing a decent job.

We’d be way less likely to put a man on the moon if we’d be barking at each other (no offence, dogs). Until we’re able to read minds we’ll have to make do with the tools we have.

Understand that language can make or break a leader.

Without strong communication, there is no shared vision. Without strong communication, there is no connection. A shared vision and connection within the team are imperative to become successful.

Language can be used as a tool to create both.

Language is power. The power to understand the world AND the power to make the world understand you. Understanding its flaws will help you become a better leader.

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About the author

Wesley van der Hoop

Dutchman living in The Bahamas. I get excited about digital marketing, writing, traveling, surfing and learning new things.

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